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Wednesday, January 08, 2014


I am not suggesting that Tycho Brahe's parents wanted to get rid of him, but when a rich uncle kidnapped the terrible two year old, they did not ask for him back. Smart people. Brahe was the most argumentative, disputatious and opinionated astronomer in the entire 16th century, maybe of all time. While attending University of Rostock the belligerent Brahe got into an three day argument a cousin over a mathematical formula. They finally settled it with a sword duel – in the dark. Brahe had to wear a metal nose for the rest of his life, brass for every day and silver for special occasions. But he still insisted he had been right. Seriously, he insulted so many people, historians have been arguing for the last 500 years over who finally murdered him.
One biographer noted Brahe (above) “tongue-lashed kings (and) tormented peasants”, usually when he was drunk, which was often. But he was also “a measuring maniac, a fussily precise man”  But the nicest thing I can say about Brahe was that he was willing to lie to protect his moose. When the Duke's moose died, William IV, of Hess-Kassel, ordered  Brahe to turn over “Rix the Moose”.  But rather than part with his own sweet faced seven hundred pound ungulate, Brahe stalled for time and then made up a story about Rix getting drunk at a party, falling down a flight of stairs and breaking his leg. It might have been true. Brahe was too unpleasant to have many human drinking buddies. But I think it more likely that Brahe was just being an arrogant jerk – again. Which is why I have always secretly suspected it might have been William who murdered Brahe – from beyond the grave.
Most of the people who hated Tycho Brahe were residents of his private three square mile island (above) in the middle of the straight between Sweden and Denmark, 15 miles north of Copenhagen. Hven was a gift from Frederick II of Denmark-Norway to support Tycho's work as the royal astronomer.  The island's fishermen and farmers were required to join the natives of 10 mainland villages in giving two days work a week to build Tycho a castle on Hven..
He called his Flemish gingerbread castle Uraniborg, and it was a combination home and observatory, with everything an ego maniac could dream of,  including a large portrait of Brahe (below) explaining life the universe and everything. Uraniborg had heated rooms and running water, at a time the King's own castle did not. Construction was so elaborate and expensive, it swallowed up more than 1% of Denmark's entire state construction budget. Brahe's excuse was that before telescopes, astronomers spent their nights sighting stars along quadrants and sextants. And Brahe insisted his sextants had to be bigger than anybody else's sextants. But even as the towers of Uraniborg were constructed, Brahe realized they swayed so much in the wind, his instruments would be almost useless.
A large part of the problem was the boorish Brahe did not inspire dedication in his unwilling workers.
Brahe's court jester (yes, he had one) suggested the Lord -of-the-island might at least provide beer for the workers. But Brahe mostly just demanded they work harder. And he punished any who complained by throwing them into the new castle's dungeon and torture chamber. 
And after two years, just as they saw an end to their burden, Brahe demanded the islanders build him a second observatory (above), Sterneborg (“castle of the stars”). “My purpose,” explained the didactic Brahe, “ have...some of the most important instruments...(not) exposed to the disturbing influence of the wind”. So having built the towers, the islanders now had to dig five large holes in the ground so Brahe and his assistants would be warm, snug and firm while cataloging the exact positions of a thousand stars. Brahe expressed no interest in how cold the islanders got while digging his new laboratory. They must have been very glad to see him go in 1597.
Brahe left Denmark because the new King, Christian IV, was not willing to placate his touchy “enfant arrogant” any longer. The 19 year old monarch stripped Brahe of most of his inherited fortune, and threatened to treat Brahe as Brahe had treated his peasants. Brahe slipped across the border into Germany, taking with him all his star charts, which technically belong to the King. Christen had satisfy himself with having the white elephant of Uraniborg torn down brick by brick. Christian became another member of the “I hate Brahe” club.
After searching for a year for any royalty willing to put up with his arrogance, in 1599 Brahe got a job offer from Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolph gave Brahe his choice of castles, but as soon as the first bills arrived for the extravagant rebuilding of Benatky Castle, Rudolph ordered Brahe and his instruments back to the capital of Prague (above). Not used to being told “no”, in 1600 Brahe went sullen and started looking for a new fly whose wings he could remove.
As his new assistant/victim Brahe picked a Polish mathematician who was just as arrogant as he was, but was poor and a Lutheran, meaning he had few friends in high places - in other words someone Brahe could safely humiliate: Johannes Kepler (above). Not only did Brahe pocket Kepler's promised salary, he forced the Pole to help work out the math supporting Brahe's view of the solar system, which Kepler thought was pure horse poop.
The Catholic Church had said Corpernicus' sun centered system was heresy. Brahe could not argue with Copernicus' math, although he wanted to because “ ascribes to the Earth, that hulking, lazy body, unfit for motion, a motion as quick as that of the ethereal torches...”. So in Brahe's design (above) the sun and moon orbited around the earth, which sat still in the center of the solar system, while the other five known planets orbited the sun, just as Corpernicus' unarguable math said they must. It was such a convoluted, complicated design, requiring wheels within wheels to function, the very idea infuriated the logical Kepler. But did being forced to become just another wheel in Brahe's self publicity machine drive the Pole to murder?
The arguments about who hated Brahe enough to kill him became more than academic on Saturday, 13 October, 1601 (Gregorian calendar), when the perverse Dane was invited to the home (above) of Prague's 17th century Hugh Hefner, Baron Peter Vok von Rosenberg. Like Brahe, Rosenberg had inherited his wealth, but the astronomer was merely celebrity eye candy at the Baron's party. And it was there, if we are to believe the hypochondriac Pierre Gassendi, the fifty-four year old Brahe took his first step to the grave, by not walking to the latrine. “During the dinner lots of wine was consumed, and Tycho noticed that his bladder was tense...Out of respect for the host, he waited however, but finally he had to get up from the table and get home.”
A wine soaked Brahe had never shown respect to anybody, King, Queen or Baron, before, so why start now? There is no doubt that when he got home the arrogant jackass was sick. According to both Gassendi and Kepler, “Hard pains followed and for five days.” Then for another five days Brahe “had a strong fever and dizziness.” According to Kepler, who had to nurse his torturer, Brahe kept repeating, “May I not have lived in vain” - in Latin. On the eleventh day, the fever broke, and he told Kepler that what was left of his fortune should be given to his wife and children, and his distant nephew Erik Brahe, who had just shown up in Prague. There was no mention of Brahe's long suffering sister Sophia, who had endured decades of her brother's insults while recording his data, nor of Kepler, who was writing all this down. A few hours later, at 9 in the morning of 24 October, 1601, Brahe died, in Erik's arms.
So was the great pain-in-the-azimuth murdered by his opportunistic nephew, working for King Charles back in Denmark? A good argument has been made for that. Or did Kepler slip a knife in his back. (above)? It was Kepler who had just been told there was no reward (and no back pay) for having put up with the arrogant jackass for over a year. Or is it possible Brahe poisoned himself, acting as his own doctor? The only important thing was that this most unpleasant man died, and that Kepler stole his data. Twenty years later Kepler used Brahe's detailed records to finally prove that Copernicus was right, and that Tycho Brahe was dead wrong. Again, the important thing, was that Brrahe was dead.  And a great many people slept soundly because of that.
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